TurboTax Initial Considerations for Online Presence and Marketing


Weakest part of the TurboTax site is its branding - over-branded to the point of logo-mania and user confusion. Is this a Quicken site? A TurboTax site? An Intuit site? Is the QuickenSTORE the place i should go to purchase TurboTax? And what about all these initiatives with their own competing logos and acronyms? The product itself -- and other Intuit products -- have been described as ``nagware'' in software reviews. Users feel it is inappropriate to have marketing and cross-promotion of other Intuit and partner products while filling out their income tax. The web site exhibits a similar level of multi-brand, multi-product confusion which may put off users as heavy-handed marketing. The ``Tax Freedom Initiative'' (or similar acronym) may be an attempt at cause related marketing -- but the cause is not evident in the name or the acronym. Companies with products facing similar branding challenges include Palm products from 3com, Norton products by Symantec, Eudora products by Qualcomm, PGP products by NAI; NetObjects and Lotus products by IBM.

Why Two Sites?

If TurboTax and MacInTax are converging into a web--based service offering instead of platform specific software, it may be the right time to nuke the platform specific web site (MacInTax) and operate from a single, well-branded, well recognized online property. The ``separate-but-equal'' site for Macintosh users may now do more to alienate Macintosh users than delight them. Consider the popularity note on existing traffic below.

Role Models

TurboTax can examine the product design and marketing of products in other industries that have rapidly shifted from a human (accountant) and physical transaction (paper tax forms basis) to an ebusiness in which transaction cost is the key competitive consideration -- such as investing (from brokers to etrades priced per transaction), travel (from agents and tickets to software agents and etickets) or auctions.


^The IRS
Not a lot. TurboTax desktop software has won the critical reviews for several years, and that shows on the web in the lack of effort by competitors. Despite the similar desktop offering from TaxCut (which appears to have changed owners several times over the years), the biggest potential threat to TurboTax online is the IRS -- it is an inevitable step (think Paperwork Reduction Act and Gore's red-tape cutting campaign) that the IRS take taxes onto the web -- sans filing fee. Certified Public Accountants might also be regarded as competition (although accountants probably purchase plenty of copies of TurboTax as well) in the same way that Medical Doctors are competition to CD-ROMs of medical advice, brokers compete with stock sites, and Lawyers are competition to subscription legal advice online.


TurboTax (both the desktop software, and presumably the web online TurboTax 1040ez) is composed of several components:

  1. An expert system (decision tree) that walks user through tax forms and helps the user reason their responses to the IRS. This is a valuable product but may not be perceived as one.
  2. Searchable Tax documentation. This is something the IRS or any other competitor could easily offer (and probably does, we need to check).
  3. eFiling - The future of TurboTax is the transaction business -- whatever they are doing to operate high-availability servers to receive and file customer tax information with the IRS in a fashion that is reliable and convenient for both the customer and the IRS is their most promising business.
  4. Printing - the IRS has pretty much made this a non-feature by offering complete tax forms from its web site in PDF format.

The expert system is clever, the documentation was demanded by early customers and magazine reviewers, the eFiling is essential but no way would the IRS give them an exclusive license to conduct an eFiling monopoly, and the printable forms from a computer have been devalued by the IRS making the same information available online.

Market & Marketing

TurboTax marketing should focus on expanding their online customer base while their desktop software competition struggles to catch up. Online competitors may be waiting for January to reveal their product offerings. To grow their eFiling (transaction) business, TurboTax should be looking for additional customers by creating demand among:

  1. accounting forms and corporations that prefer to design, market and brand their own online Tax program (for which TurboTax provides the back-end)
  2. college students and others with low income who don't have to file---but could do so for practice, parental paranoia, legislation, or simply marketing TurboTax to encourage this behavior
  3. consultants and the self-employed---folks who should be filing taxes (and paying a transaction fee) four times per year
  4. encouraging users to file extensions, so they effectively pay to file their taxes twice per year


Intuit and Quicken are already Alexa 1K web sites, e.g. they are among the 1,000 most-visited sites on the web. The TurboTax site creeps into the top 10,000 sites; MacInTax is far behind, not anywhere in the top 100,000.

Service Provider

If TurboTax and Intuit have the back-end necessary to reliably process tax transactions, and the transaction is the limiting factor for competitors, TurboTax might choose to license an API or co-branded interface to their behind-the-scenes transaction service, so that the major accounting firms (or even small ones) could offer their own online tax service -- which they would market but the transaction fee would go straight to Intuit.

High Availability and Crisis Handling

When eBay goes offline for 48 hours, $3-5 Million dollars are lost. When Dell or Gateway goes offline for 24 hours, $5-6 Million dollars are lost. If TurboTax.com were to suffer an outage on April 15th (they were forced to shutdown for hours on April 12th, 1999), what would be lost (customer & partner trust, loyalty, not just revenue), and how is TurboTax prepared for the contingency? Although TurboTax fared better than Intel's Pentium flaw fiasco, TurboTax was grilled by the media for its handling of calculation errors in the TurboTax product a few years ago.

Suggested Actions

  1. Visual makeover to highlight the TurboTax brand/product and de-emphasize (but not demote) the parent and affiliate brands Intuit and Quicken.
  2. Compete with the IRS as an online information center -- create a searchable index (aka portal) of IRS tax information and offer it free to online users with a better interface for search/retrieval than the IRS offers. If IRS availability is not assured, mirror the content onto TurboTax webspace for improved reliability.
  3. Identify three similar markets (investment to online trading may be one) undergoing a similar business transition and look for lessons that TurboTax should be applying to its own transition from desktop software to an online transaction service.
  4. Continue and extend the creative marketing -- Intuit was using banner ads on Link Exchange back when it was still a grassroots banner movement; and the Intuit/Excedrin headache relief coupon campaign was hailed in the trade press as genius marketing. So what will the next Intuit marketing coup be?
  5. Consider marketing the backend as a co-brand option to other vendors.
  6. Emphasize the expert system in the marketing material

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